Friday, July 21, 2017

Stoopid Birds!

I often hear people make comments along the lines of: “Today a bird flew right into my window. Stoopid bird!” or “Stoopid ducks - why are they crossing a busy highway?”

But what’s really stupid - or maybe “silly” or “surprising” or even “horrifying” is the better word - is that we as humans have the expectation that wild birds should figure out our unnatural human world and make accommodations for it. In the last few decades, we seem to reason, wild birds should have evolved an understanding of reflective windows in houses and how dangerous they are. And they certainly should have figured out what a highway is and how to avoid it, even if it is inconveniently located between a prime nesting spot and a desired body of water.

"Barn Swallow," by Linda Tanner CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In fact, birds make surprising accommodations to our human world and its infringement on their own. In The Bluebird Effect (one of my favorite books!), naturalist and artist Julie Zickefoose writes that in multiple incidents recorded in the U.S. and Japan, barn swallows have figured out how to open the sliding glass doors in big-box stores and warehouses. They identify the motion-activated electric eye unit and hover in front of it until the doors slide open. Then the birds quickly fly in (or out) before the doors close. Successive generations learn the technique from their parents, such that a Home Depot in Maplewood, Minnesota, has had a barn swallow colony return every year to nest inside the store since 2000!

"Put Me Back! House Finch Greets the World,"
by John Flannery CC BY-SA 2.0
And this article and video summarize a recent experiment by Mexican scientists seeking to explain why urban house finches have the odd behavior of stuffing discarded cigarette butts into their nests. The scientists theorize that it’s a pest-control technique: the cigarette butts ward off blood-sucking ticks that otherwise infest their nests. It turns out that nicotine has some anti-parasite properties.

Despite these happy stories, overall our human world is changing the bird world much too fast for the birds to keep up. Bird numbers are declining - alarmingly fast for some species - because we’re clearing their habitat, poisoning the insects they eat and the water they drink, interfering with their migration by putting windmills in their path and lighting up the night sky, and so on. (For more information, see the 2016 State of North America's Birds report.)

Even the clever little house finches haven’t yet caught on that those discarded cigarette butts - one of the world’s greatest sources of environmental pollution, by the way - are causing genetic damage to their chicks by interfering with cell division. But doesn’t that make us humans, the ones who throw out the cigarette butts in the first place, the stoopid ones?

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Driving My Dad, Part 2

Last week I wrote of my dad's civil engineering view of nature and the growing belief over his lifetime that nature should be put in service of humans. I was thinking a great deal about his perspective during my recent month-long stay in Beijing, China, and its environs.

Over the last ten years, China has embarked on the world's largest reforestation program, spending as much as $100 billion planting trees. In case that passed by you, let me repeat it: ONE HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS.

China has done this in response to some pretty dire environmental (and economic) concerns: desertification, soil erosion, air pollution, and runoff into waterways. But recent data shows that this effort has been useless at best and disastrous at worst. Non-native, genetically engineered, and ecologically inappropriate trees have been planted where trees previously did not exist. Monocultures of poplar and other tree species have been planted, inviting disease and insect infestation. Mixed-growth forests have been felled and plantations of "economically useful" (such as rubber) trees planted in their place.
A tree-planting program in Hebei Province, glimpsed from a bus.
What was immediately apparent to me in Beijing was the fact that tree-planting programs had been conducted in defiance of basic ecological and biodiversity approaches. I saw rows and rows and rows of one species of tree, each individual exactly the same age and size, planted exactly the same width apart, with no weeds or undergrowth allowed. One recent study showed that biodiversity actually declined when agricultural land was reforested with monoculture plantings in China: bird species took a modest hit and bee species a drastic one.

At the Temple of Heaven, imperial building styles show symmetry and clean lines.
Always thinking like a cultural anthropologist, I immediately wondered if there must be some cultural preference for this kind of planting. Vague notions of “feng shui” came to mind, something about harmony and order. I had noted the perfect symmetry and clean lines of many of the imperial buildings we visited in Beijing, such as the Temple of Heaven. They were surrounded by parks and gardens characterized by these same too-perfect plantings. I remembered feeling oppressed in such places, even as I admired their beauty, because of that carefully constructed perfection. I was also creeped out by the lack of wildlife and insects, other than magpies and a couple of other bird species that I saw again and again.

The symmetry and clean lines continue into the plantings of the Temple of Heaven park.
A bit of research suggests that my assumptions about culture were both right and wrong. Traditional Chinese gardens were, yes, very composed, but in such a way as to fill the human eye with a mixed portrait of trees, flowers, water, rocks, and buildings. Each vista was intended to provide a diverse offering of human-nature interactions brought into harmony and accord. Interaction with the West in the 19th century and beyond brought a new fashion: green grass, neat plantings of trees and flowers, and long views of lawn. It turns out those oppressive parks I saw represent a Western aesthetic taken to a Chinese extreme.
The Purple Bamboo park in Beijing, showing the traditional Chinese garden style.
I think the monoculture tree plantings represent a syncretism: the ancient Chinese love for composing nature for human pleasure, combined with a Western love for taming nature for human control, combined with a contemporary Chinese belief in planning nature through science and technology for human benefit. The scale of Chinese planning is breathtaking. The cities in North China are running out of water, so the Chinese government is rerouting some of the Southern rivers and piping water up to the North. The desert is growing, so the Chinese government is planting acres and acres of eucalyptus trees in hopes of containing it. Beijing has a lot of smog in part because there isn't enough wind to blow it out, so the Chinese government is building tall forests that will reroute the wind to and through Beijing.

I see a lot of Dad's point of view in the way that China is managing nature today. I hear echoes of my father saying, "All the big problems in the world today are engineering problems." But there is something deep within me that rejects the idea that nature can limitlessly serve humans and be addressed primarily through engineering, and I can't help but feel that China's failing reforestation efforts prove me right.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Driving My Dad, Part 1

In the last several years of his life, my father and I loved to go on car rides together. I would drive while he would point out landmarks: a creek where people used to be baptized, the location of one of the peach sheds that marked Arkansas’s long ago past as a major peach producer, a hillside thick with cedar trees indicating the presence of limestone. He knew so much about the history and the topography of southwest Arkansas, and I always learned a lot.

These car rides harkened back to many such car rides with him when I was a little girl. I loved to ride in the car, snooze on and off, and stare out the window and daydream as he told me long and (to my child’s mind) boring stories about his work life or a civil engineer’s view on the merits of asphalt versus concrete roadways. (I’ll never forget one car ride adventure, when I was around eight or nine years old. We stopped at a gas station, and I asked if I could have some money to buy some candy. “Sure,” he said and gave me a dollar. A week or so later he asked, “Where’s that dollar you owe me?” A child of the Depression for sure!)

In later years, there was something that frustrated him more and more on our rides together. He would see a brushy fencerow, or a stand of scraggly trees along the side of the road, or a weedy pasture, and shake his head in disgust. “Who would let that go to waste like that? I hate to see it!” he would complain fiercely. “I just don't know why a person or a government would allow that to happen.” That would lead into a discussion, again a civil engineer’s view of the world: rivers are meant to produce power, fields are meant to nurture crops or feed animals or grow pine trees for the local paper mills, and roadsides are meant to look neat and clean and tidy, showcasing good management of shared public property.

I look at those same scraggly places and see sources of food and cover for wildlife, fields that could grow grasses to sustain the breeding of the many grassland bird species now in rapid decline, and roadsides of bee-covered wildflowers and weeds. “But Daddy, what about the wildlife?” I would ask, knowing how much he loved birds and wildlife, too. He would grunt or answer noncommittally and move on to the next topic. I got the message: wildlife shouldn’t get in the way of progress.

Dad’s point of view made me think of centuries of rugged people in America logging forests, diverting waterways, building canals and bridges, and mowing lawns. They saw the land as something to be put to use and managed, something that would help them survive or make them grow rich. And the land and water have given us much. I’ve written previously about how we’ve also developed a preference for mowed yards and careful landscaping, a containment of nature. But it seems to me that we’re realizing now the importance of the scraggly, the unmanaged, the wild.

A few days ago I returned from spending a month in China, where I observed the manifestations of a cultural and historical context that has viewed nature as something to be organized, managed, and brought into harmony. More on that in Part 2. Hint: this photo of a tree-planting project shows neat, weed-free rows of one species of tree, with the same precisely-measured distance between each individual. I think Dad would approve!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Nature Human Is on Hiatus!

It's been a while since I posted, and it will be a little longer still. Nature Human is on hiatus. I will begin posting again on Thursday, July 6, and every Thursday thereafter. Thanks for checking in!

Friday, December 30, 2016

I Love My Cats. Do They Love Me?

Chili, the angel.
Our cat Chili is an angel. All she requires is regular food and water, a little daily string chasing, a warm lap to curl up in every time she gets a chance, and a hefty amount of independence.

Lemmon, on the other hand, is a whiny pest. She follows us around, mewling and trilling and stretching up to try to turn the doorknobs of doors she wants us to open. When I open the pantry for any reason, she runs across the house hoping to be fed. She stations herself in the path where she knows I will walk next, desperate even for the attention of being kicked accidentally. I can never feed her enough food or play with her for a long enough period of time to satisfy her insatiable desires.

Lemmon, in a calm moment.
Or so it used to be. Although I love her desperately even at her whiniest, I was concerned that she wasn’t behaving in a healthy way. I did quite a bit of reading online about needy and demanding cats and finally happened upon an article stating that focused attention for a few minutes a day could turn these behaviors around. The author wrote of the importance of holding and petting a needy/whiny cat like Lemmon, looking in her eyes, and telling her how much I love her, repeating her name over and over again. Believe it or not, it works! At first it was hard for her to get used to being held like a baby, and she seemed to feel a bit strange about all the eye contact (as cats do). But now she settles right in and blinks at me happily as I repeat her name and coo at her. Sometimes she reaches her paws up towards my face, and a couple of times she has even bitten or licked me softly on my nose and cheeks. Five or ten minutes of this special time calms her down for a long time; a couple of sessions usually last the whole day.

Recently my husband and I watched The Lion in Your Living Room, a Netflix documentary about cats and how, even after millennia of domestication, they retain their wild behaviors. It was fascinating. But the documentary didn’t cover the emotional lives of cats, didn’t seek to explain moments like my special times with Lemmon. Is her growing calmness in my arms simply a reliving of her days as a kitten, turning instinctively to her mother for food and warmth and security? Or do we share an emotional relationship that exists beyond instinct?

Scholars in Animal Studies are currently studying this question: do animals experience emotions and, if so, what is the nature of those emotions? The field bifurcates: domesticated animals whose lives are wrapped up with those of humans may or may not have an emotional life different from that of free-ranging animals. The problem is that scientists cannot ask animals to explain their emotions, so they must infer them from their behaviors. (Of course, just because humans can explain their emotions doesn’t mean we fully understand those either!) Moments of play, courtship, and sharing of food suggest that animals are experiencing such emotion as joy, love, and care, respectively. The behaviors of hanging onto a dead relative or mate with a dejected air - which has been documented in many species of mammals and birds - suggest grief. The next question is how long these “emotions” last. Can animals be said to have real emotions if they are fleeting, unlike humans, who can remember and dwell on emotions such as grief for years?

There are also promising directions in research involving brain imaging, showing what areas of the brain light up when animals see other animals or humans or food or toys. And physical measurements can be taken: heart rate, eye movements, and so on. But then there is the problem of interpretation, as in studies of the human brain: explaining what is happening is much easier than figuring out why.

I think about these questions as I hold my little Lemmon. I’m glad we’re trying to answer them even though I’m not convinced we’ll ever really know the nature of animal emotions. Some scholars argue quite convincingly that humans are simply projecting our own emotions onto those animal behaviors. But it’s amazing enough to me to me that two such very different creatures as Lemmon and I can snuggle, let everything else go, look each other in the eye, and simply feel good in each other’s company. Isn’t that already pretty remarkable? And it sure feels like love to me.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Seven Bird Gifts of Christmas

On Christmas Eve, I can’t help but notice that most of the gifts given in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are birds:

Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five golden rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

Wait, you say! Golden rings aren’t birds. Well, not a lot is known about the origins of the song, but many speculate that, in keeping with the other kinds of gifts mentioned, the five rings may refer to rings on a bird, such as the ring-necked pheasant, or perhaps to the “goldspinks," which shows up in an old Scottish version, a reference to the goldfinch. Another clarification: “calling” birds is a more recent term. Older versions refer to “collie birds,” which are blackbirds (think black like coal), or “canary birds.” French hens are basically chickens.

Xavier Romero-Frias, "Twelve Days of
Christmas Song Poster," CC BY-SA 3.0
This very old song probably originated as a children’s memory and forfeit game, where one child keeps advancing until making a mistake in trying to remember all the words, and then the next child gets a turn. Since the song is about Advent gift giving (probably from a lover to his love), this implies that at the time of its origin birds were considered among the very best gifts possible. One can imagine that birds represented all kinds of ideas that a lover would wish to convey to his beloved: beauty (swans), fertility (geese laying eggs), nourishment (pheasants and hens), cuddling (turtle doves), and romantic love (partridge, with its heart-shaped breast). It also shows the agricultural base of the context, calling up an image of maids a-milking (perhaps another nod to fertility), surrounded by farm animals such as geese and chickens.

In short, this silly song provides another example of how we invoke animals as symbols in our relationships to one another.

So Merry Christmas to you all. Thank you for the gift you give me of reading my blog! In return, I give you this old video of a wonderful parody of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” by the a cappella group Straight No Chaser.